The Scarborough Aquarium Tram Disaster

On Wednesday September 16th, 1925, a runaway tram smashed through the roof of the Scarborough Aquarium.

You can view video footage of the crash site here.

This happened either shortly before or after the venue was purchased by the Scarborough Corporation and re-named Gala Land. Either way, the ballroom roof was completely destroyed, and pictures show streamers and decorations surrounded by wreckage and chaos; the tram car balancing precariously on one end, amidst debris on the ballroom floor.

Tram Crash Damage

Above: The crash scene – image purchased by Stories From Scarborough; please do not copy without permission (hosted here)

There is some confusion as to the number of the streetcar that crashed. Some reports say it was number 25, others state number 21. The latter is most likely, and is supported by many accounts of the event. Part of a fleet of trams, delivered to Scarborough in 1905 (the tramways opened a year earlier with an initial fleet of 18), the tram in question was driven by 32-year old George Darley Smith on that fateful day on September 16th.

Scarborough Aquarium

Above: The Aquarium before the tramlines – image purchased by Stories From Scarborough; please do not copy without permission (hosted here)

As he ascended Vernon Road, the tramcar faltered, then began to slip backwards. Sensing impending disaster, the conductor, Mr A. Wike, and two passengers (a PC Robinson and his wife, from Pudsey) jumped clear, but Smith, certain he could stop the car, crashed through the wall that separated the road from the Aquarium, and plummeted thirty feet through the ballroom roof. No one expected to find him alive, let alone with relatively minor injuries.

The back of his head is still bandaged, but the rest in hospital did him a lot of good. Our Scarborough correspondent saw him for a minute or two yesterday morning in the hospital, but he did not feel he could enter into details as to how the accident happened. All he would say was that he felt quite confident to the last second that he would be able to bring the car to a standstill.

(from The Yorkshire Post, Friday 18th September, 1925)

Similarly, Mr and Mrs Robinson didn’t escape completely unscathed. Both suffered severe shock and the latter dislocated (or broke, depending on which report you read) her ankle, necessitating a brief stay in hospital. As for the tramcar – in the days following the crash it remained in the ballroom – a tarpaulin sheet covering the shattered roof, and a wooden board concealed the gap in the wall above. The tram was later removed in pieces, and replaced on the circuit by a new car. The Ministry of Transport were also informed, so that an investigation could be carried out. It was found that the tram had lost its grip, and the stretch of track in question was problematic, thus freeing George Darley Smith from any blame.

Tram Crash Damage

Above: Three unnamed men pose beside the stricken tram – image purchased by Stories From Scarborough; please do not copy without permission (hosted here)

The then manager of nearby Scarborough Corporation BathsHerbert Shaw – was one of several rescuers who came to Smith’s aid. The pair had been childhood friends, and Shaw recounted an amusing anecdote, which bore striking similarities to the tram driver’s plight:

…this is the second time that he has rescued Smith from a peculiar predicament. The first was when they were schoolboys. They were playing together with other schoolboys near to Wilson’s Wood, at Scarborough, with a bogey used for carrying clay down the lower end of the dell. The truck got out of control and all the boys on her jumped clear except Smith, who got landed in a pond at the bottom of a steep inclined, and Shaw pulled him out with a pole.

(from The Yorkshire Post, Friday 18th September, 1925)

As for the Aquarium, or Gala Land as it was then known – the cancellation of dancing in its illustrious ballroom was only temporary. Stories From Scarborough has been unable to locate details of when repairs were completed, and the tramlines closed in 1929, thus preventing further possible accidents of this nature. Further research suggests that George Darley Smith, whose remarkable escape captured the attention of newspapers across the country, sadly died during WWII. Reports indicate that he saw active service, although the nature of his death is unknown – if indeed this is the same person (ancestry records, key dates and so on all point toward this being the case).

The next disaster to hit Gala Land was its destruction in 1968. This, however, was a planned event.

There would be no repairing on this occasion.

Sources

Ticket To Disaster For Tram Passengers

Scarborough Tram Crash: Driver Out Of Hospital

Scarborough Tramways Company

British Pathe

Scarborough Aquarium Top: Bus Stop, Tram Stop, Car Park, Café?

There are few physical reminders of the Scarborough Aquarium (or its successor – Gala Land) around the base of the Cliff Bridge. Gone are the underground palatial arches and the overground entrance – the sunken wonderland is now an undergound car park, bearing little resemblance to its former self. However, the area itself is still known locally as Aquarium Top, and the current conversion of the St. Nicholas Cliff Lift (into a café, apparently) pays homage to this Victorian namesake.

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Above: The ongoing conversion of the St. Nicholas Cliff Lift (Copyright: Stories From Scarborough)

Below: Detail (Copyright: Stories From Scarborough)

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Likewise the bus stop opposite the Rotunda Museum, also acknowledges a past that many holidaymakers and casual visitors to Scarborough, may be completely unaware of.

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Above: The Aquarium Top bus stop (Copyright: Stories From Scarborough)

Indeed, whereas today the road is teeming with cars – and its underbelly houses a car park – the area was once the turning point for Scarborough’s electric tramway system.

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Above: From aquarium to car park (Copyright: Stories From Scarborough)

Between 1904 and 1929, five miles worth of track carried electric trams around Scarborough, covering destinations such as Foreshore Road, North Marine Road and Eastborough. The trams also made their way past Scarborough Aquarium (later Gala Land) to make the steepest of all climbs – up Vernon Road.

You can view a picture of the tram climbing Ramsdale Valley here.

In 1925, streetcar number 21 (or 25, depending on which report you read) caused considerable damage to the glass roof of the aquarium ballroom, in the same year that the Scarborough Corporation purchased the site and re-named it Gala Land. According to the Scarborough News, greasy rails and brake failure were blamed for the accident, causing the vehicle to make a dramatic backwards descent whilst trying to climb Vernon Road. The wall that separated the aquarium from the road was also destroyed. Driver George Smith was still in the car when the crash occurred, although was not seriously hurt – several passengers and the conductor had managed to jump free before impact.

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Above: The aftermath – there has been difficulty locating the source of this image, given that the link on which it was found is no longer operational. If you own the copyright or know of any reason why it should not be included here, please get in touch, and it can be taken down.

Scarborough Aquarium or rather the stretch of land nearby, was also the destination and boarding point for the old St Nicholas Cliff Lift. Part of Scarborough’s collection of funiculars (which also included tramways on the North Cliff, Queen’s Parade, South Cliff, and Central Tramway – only the latter two still operate today). The South Cliff Lift was the first funicular railway to operate in Britain, and was created by the Scarborough South Cliff Tramway Company Limited in 1873. It didn’t open until 1875, by which point the Marine Aquarium Company Scarborough Ltd had formed to build the aquarium. Although they formed in 1874, the aquarium didn’t open until 1877.

It is worth noting that early tramway and aquarium plans were mooted by the Scarborough Sub Tramway Aquarium & Improvement Company Ltd – an organisation that formed in 1871. It has been difficult to establish what, if any, role(s) they played in the later establishment of both in Scarborough.

Above: Cliff Lift ticket (source)

However, whilst the Queen’s Parade (1878) and Central (1880) lines opened soon after, it wasn’t until 1929, shortly after the aquarium was renamed Gala Land, that the St. Nicholas line opened. Its boarding point at the base of the cliff was (and still is) referred to as the Aquarium Top, and passengers initially boarded the tram directly – there was no station and all mechanics were controlled from the top of the cliff. A station was later added however, and whilst the line closed in 2006, it is now being transformed into an aptly named Aquarium Top Café. A touching reminder of the former aquarium’s existence.

What do you think of the café idea? Should the St. Nicholas Cliff Lift Return? How about the aquarium – should it be commemorated more visibly in the landscape today? Ought tourists to be informed of it and its fascinating history?

Please comment and share your thoughts.

Sources

Scarborough News Article

Tramlines Found Under The Road

Scarborough Funiculars

South Cliff Railway

Café Plan For Old Cliff Lift